Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann Last year at this time, I stood in front of this…
Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
Dedicated to Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan z”l and all those who started the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in 1922
Imagine, for a moment if you will, that you are an Israelite, wandering in the rough and unforgiving desert. You are scared and exhausted when you are invited to participate in a building project — to build the mishkan, the Tabernacle, where the community can gather and worship.
Using all the materials one could find within the community- along with the skill and talent of all the artisans and craftsfolx and everyday people, you build every aspect, from the grandest altar to the smallest decoration.
After what seems like an endless amount of time, the work is done. Then, your leader, Moses, draws everyone together, takes a look around, sees all the work that has been completed and offers a blessing (Exodus 39: 43).
You feel so proud when you hear his words and look at all the community has accomplished.
But you also realize that something sounds strangely familiar.
“Oh yeah, I remember this from around the campfire: This is the exact same thing that happened when God finished the work of Creation!”
וַיַּ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ —
Va-yar Elohim- and God looked
מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה
M’lachto Asher Asah- At all the work that had been done
Va-y’varech Elohim- and God blessed [all that was created]
It could not be a coincidence. Moses must be trying to communicate an important message to us: that what we have built is as grand and as amazing and as important as Creation itself. Our mishkan was not just going to be a place to worship. It is a microcosm of the world we wish to create. Wow.
I share this story this morning because like our ancestors, we are wandering in a seemingly endless and unforgiving desert. Despite our best hopes, we are still in the midst of a global pandemic — a pandemic that has laid bare and exacerbated the inequities and structural racism of our society. Antisemitism is on the rise, along with other forms of hate and supremacy. The threats of climate change have come, quite literally, to our door, leaving us grieving and afraid.
And it seems that every day we wake up and read something new and frightening.
I share about the Torah about the Mishkan and its purposeful parallel to the Creation narrative because it is Rosh HaShanah — HaYom HaRat Olam.
Typically, HaYom HaRat Olam is translated as “Today is the world’s birthday” but which more accurately translates to “Today the world is pregnant” — or “the world is being birthed.” On this holy day, we are reminded of our opportunity to birth a new world into being.
And I share this teaching because I believe, clearly like the ancestors who carefully wrote and connected all the parts of the Torah, that one of the most vital and most powerful and most hopeful things we can do to Create the world we want to see is to build our mishkan, our sacred community.
Now, I imagine some of you are scratching your heads right now — if I am talking about the world we want to see, shouldn’t I be talking about where to give tzedakah, or the imperative of lowering our carbon footprint or welcoming refugees from Afghanistan?
And what about the urgency of protecting a women’s right to choose, especially in light of the draconian Texas abortion ban, and its potential to set women’s rights and our country back a century?
Of course all those things — and more — are critically important — but here’s the thing –they are part of the same whole of building sacred community.
For sacred community, if done right, is where we get the nourishment to do those very things and be sustained for the long term. It’s where we get the koah (strength) to look despair straight in the eye and cast it aside and keep going — again and again. Sacred Community is where we experience the sense of shleymut (wholeness) that holds us when we are struggling and helps us to feel more alive, present, and courageous.
Since we have not been physically together in 17 months it may be worth the reminder: THIS is what we are living into and striving when we build our SAJ mishkan. We are creating — building — the world we want to see and want our community’s children to inherit.
Here are *some* of the ways how:
We are building a world of compassion, in which Loving our Neighbor is an active practice.
In contrast to those in our society who claim that their individual liberties are more important than the health and safety of their neighbors, SAJ is committed to living out the principle of “Ve’ahavta L’re’acha Kamocha” — loving our neighbors as ourselves. Immediately after the lockdown in March 2020, our Caring Committee galvanized dozens of volunteers to make calls, ensuring that everyone was safe and supported. And when we couldn’t celebrate and mourn in the ways we knew how, we worked tirelessly to support those going through personal transitions.
Further, we actively train ourselves in compassion, build the muscle memory of kindness and responsibility through prayer, meditation, and work with middot (character traits).
We are building a world that values thinking and questioning over obedience or willful ignorance.
For years, many of us have been lamenting the post-truth era. But this year, we saw first-hand how dangerous it is when people believe what they have been lied to or because they want it to be true. We have seen the violence that can come when facts are irrelevant.
On this point, I want to be very clear -I am not just speaking about people in other parts of the country — I have seen this post-truth mentality in action during my advocacy with those experiencing homelessness in NYC. I have seen people use lies and mistruths to justify and galvanize support for their position — and how people who want to believe them do, without listening to the facts or full story.
In contrast, SAJ, we engage, struggle with, question, criticize, embrace, and debate Torah. We match devotion to Torah with respect for science and truth. And perhaps the most incredible part is that this is the Judaism that we are teaching our children in Makom and in our teen program, where we encourage the pursuit of questions even more than answers and encourage a healthy skepticism of authority. This is very different than the Hebrew school I grew up in where we were told to be quiet and behave. I imagine those of you who attended a Hebrew school would feel similarly.
In fact, our kids are leading the way.
Recently, a conversion student told me she made the final decision to become Jewish after attending an SAJ B* Mitzvah in which the young girl called out a problematic passage of the Torah as “sexist” and “wrong” at the start of her drash. The conversion student said to me: “If this is what it means to claim the covenant, then I want in.”
We are building a world that affirms the dignity of each person and inspires us to bend the arc towards justice.
SAJ, through the efforts of incredible lay leaders, engages its members to support formerly incarcerated folks, immigrants and refugees, those experiencing food insecurity, and those who have been disenfranchised. While the study of America’s history with slavery and white supremacy is contested, SAJ members self-organized a new iteration of the Racial Justice Reading group, which will continue and expand its scope next year. And while folks in Texas and around the country were working these past years to ban abortion in the name of religion, SAJ members were praying with their feet, escorting outside Bronx Abortion Clinic (pre-Covid) to support women exercising their reproductive freedom.
This past year, I was able to be a voice of the faith community in support of those experiencing homelessness. My ability to galvanize the community on this and other activist work was, I admit, diminished in the last bit of time due to Covid. But I brought you with me in my heart. And I know that we find ways to do meaningful work as a community when we can more safely gather, especially because this moment of crisis demands a response.
We are creating a world where diversity is our strength and all are invited to contribute to the ongoing revelation of Torah.
We are seekers and non-believers alike; families with children and without children; single, married; young and old; white, black, Asian, Latino; gay, straight, transgender, non-binary; Jewish by birth, by choice or people of other faiths living in a Jewish household.
This is not an accident. We actively work to make sure that those in our gates and those who may enter them feel not only seen but celebrated.
An example: In the fall, a father contacted me about two months before what would have been his child’s “bar” mitzvah. The father told me that his child came out as non-binary, and changed their pronouns to they/them. He then sounded nervous: “Is it still ok to go ahead with the “Bar Mitzvah”? What do we need to change? What do we need to do?”
I burst out joyfully: “Absolutely nothing! The ceremony, the language, the calls, the words we use in our email bulletin — we have spent the last year working so that the B*Mitzvah celebration is open to anyone of any gender identity. Nothing changes. We cannot wait to celebrate them!”
I share this not only as a feel good story, which it is — but also to state clearly that the work we do matters. This example of inclusivity comes against a backdrop of a rise in the attack on transgender rights, with more than 100 bills in thirty-three states that seek those rights.
And while the Jewish community is generally more open-minded, not all are ready or are willing to do the work of educating themselves and making real change. That phone call or that simcha have been an experience of pain and rejection for the family or child, possibly an end to the relationship with Judaism and their Jewish community. Instead it was a moment of blessing and belonging.
In January, we begin a year-long celebration of SAJ’s centennial year.
At this seminal moment, it is vital we remember that though the challenges we face are unique, we are not the first group of SAJers to imagine a radically different world than the one they inherited.
Dr. Mordecai Kaplan, our founding rabbi, left the Jewish Center (likely by his own will alone) because he was questioning Torah and rethinking God and major concepts of Jewish life. He had the notion (which now we take for granted but then it was new!) that one should not have to check your brain at the door of the synagogue or sanctuary. He asked the big questions no one else at the time was asking.
While Dr. Kaplan (as he was known) was not an activist out in the streets, he was an ethicist who consistently called out tyranny and the abuse of power, who advocated in support of workers and unions in the presence of factory owners.
And, Kaplan’s initiation of the BAT mitzvah is the model par excellence for changing Jewish ritual in order to expand greater access to Torah. When Kaplan left the Jewish Center, bat mitzvah was on his mind. He was deeply moved by the women’s suffragist movement, and he knew in his mind that women’s roles in Judaism needed to change.
SAJ held its first meeting on January 17, 1922. Just two weeks later, on February 5, Kaplan went to SAJ’s board with the proposal that the congregation initiate the rite of bat mitzvah. Just six weeks later, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein became the first woman in American Jewish history to have a bat mitzvah.
Now I have heard rumblings, criticisms — even from Judith’s family — that the first bat mitzvah is a bit “overrated.” Judith was told by her father to prepare an additional Torah reading the night before her father called her up. No year of meaningful preparation. No invitations or special new dress. Judith joined the men’s section (yes! You heard that right — SAJ started with a men’s section!) but did not ascend to the bimah, rather stood up in her seat to chant her verses.
Yes, Judith’s experience is nothing like what young girls do today. Thank goodness!
But it is still true that this barrier-breaking moment changed everything. Once bat mitzvah was initiated, it ignited nothing short of a revolution of egalitarianism in Jewish life. Once girls ascended to the bimah, they got a taste — and they wanted more. Girls and women began to fight for greater access and soon, girls and women were leading prayers, sitting on synagogue boards, becoming rabbis.
And it is critical to note: This gender revolution in Judaism has opened the door for access to other groups on the margins — Jews by choice, LGBTQ Jews, those in interfaith households, Jews of color. Most importantly, it has provided a framework for a Judaism that actively seeks to bring those on them margins to the center.
And we can trace all this back to the radical idea started at SAJ- that if we open the tent, Judaism and all of us will be better for it.
As we celebrate our 100th anniversary, alongside the commitments to building a world of responsibility, questioning, justice, and radical welcome, let’s lift up and claim the spirit of SAJ’s innovative, daring, and radical history.
Let’s be bold and dream big as we envision the next 100 years.
Let’s ask hard questions about the changing realities of contemporary Jewish life.
Let’s strengthen our practice of a joyful and thoughtful Judaism that impacts us and even more importantly for the present and future children of SAJ who will shape the future of Judaism and the broader world.
All the while, let us hold in our hearts the lesson Moses taught our ancestors while they were wandering in the desert: that sacred community has incredible power and potency.
It is a microcosm of Creation — where we build the world we wish to see.
Let’s get to work!
The parallel in language between Exodus 39:42–32 and Genesis 1:31–2:3 is well documented. One of many examples is: https://rabbisacks.org/making-space-vayakhel-pekudei-5778/
To learn about the timing and content of the Bat Mitzvah, I consulted with Rabbi Carole Balin, who has written the forthcoming book: Count Me In: How Bat Mitzvah Changed the Face of American Jewry (Forthcoming)
I also suggest Rabbi Deborah Waxman’s article “A Jewish Feminine Mystique?”